Ken Russell: Success with Excess
by Jon Bastian
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I first became a Ken Russell fan in high school, when I saw most of his 1970’s work in art-house showings. What drew me to his films was the controversy they caused. Some scandal or another always accompanied his latest effort and, for a rebellious teen, there’s no better recommendation for an artist than that the grown-ups hate him.
I’m still a fan, but not unreservedly. I’ve never met a Kubrick film I didn’t love, but there are Ken Russell films I can’t stand. He’s hit-or-miss, probably due to his days as a bio-pic director for BBC Television in the 1960s, when he cranked out three or four films a year. When you work that fast, you learn to go with first ideas. A lot of Russell’s first ideas are screamingly outrageous, but not all of them work.
In retrospect, I’d say Russell’s effective career lasted from 1969’s Women in Love to its 1989 prequel, The Rainbow. Prior to Women, he made one fluffy feature, The Billion Dollar Brain, and a decade’s worth of BBC bios. After Women, he fired off a series of amazing films (and a couple of clunkers) rapid-fire, cresting with Altered States in 1980. The 80’s brought a spotty series of work, capped by 1991’s Whore, after which Russell returned, apparently for good, to British television.
Russell’s greatest strengths are also his biggest weaknesses. He has incredible style, and an ability to create elaborate visual metaphors, executed with distinctive cinematography. When the elements come together, they’re breathtaking. When they don’t, you’ll laugh until you wet yourself. You get either the full-on air show or a plane crash. There is no middle ground.
Nineteen seventy-five was a mid-air collision, as Russell put out Tommy and Lisztomania back-to-back. The Who’s album pre-sold Tommy, which pre-sold Lisztomania, and both films are unmitigated disasters. Part of the problem with Tommy is that it was a big, anticipated prestige project, no doubt saddled with studio meddling, particularly in the casting. The film is stuffed with 70’s celebrities and rock stars — Ann-Margaret, Jack Nicholson, Elton John, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton and all of The Who. The results are frequently ludicrous. It’s impossible to believe that thirty-four year old Ann-Margaret is old enough to be teen Tommy’s mother, and it’s harder to believe that thirty-one year old Roger Daltrey is a naive adolescent, especially given the degenerative effects of his rocker lifestyle. Elton John’s Pinball Wizard, in three foot platform shoes, trademark gigantor glasses and a tam o’shanter topped with a giant silver sphere, comes across as a demented English eccentric, not a mythical game-player who must be defeated. Compare him with the 90’s stage version of the character, who oozes dangerous foe. Worst cast of all is Jack Nicholson, who is a fine actor, but not a singer, so he “Rex Harrison’s” his way through one of the few real melodies in the piece. It feels like Jack knew he was slumming and only showed up for the paycheck.
Tina Turner is brilliant as the Acid Queen, but it would have been interesting to see this role played by first choice David Bowie. Keith Moon is wicked as the twisted Uncle Ernie; however, the presence of both sexually abusive Ernie and physically abusive Cousin Kevin (Paul Nicholas) dilute each other and slow the movie down. We get it the first time; we don’t need the repeat.
Atop this mishmosh, Russell runs amuck. It works when mom takes Tommy to be cured by The Preacher (Eric Clapton) and we’re treated to a high-camp High Mass in which Marilyn Monroe stands in for the deity and communion consists of booze and pills. The sight of a dozen altar boys in choir robes and Marilyn masks, swinging their censers while they do the Vatican Rag, is hilarious. The combination of screen goddess Marilyn and guitar god Clapton makes a subtle point about pop culture icon worship. On the flip side, Cousin Kevin’s abuse of Tommy goes way, way over the top, and a sequence in which Ann-Margaret is showered with champagne bubbles, chocolate and chili con caca (in a white knit dress, in a white room) is so excessively pointless it defies explanation.
Luckily for Russell, we can blame a lot of what’s wrong with Tommy on The Who. In their version of the alienated British war-baby rock star story, the hero is an innocent victim around whom a cult accrues, a deaf, dumb and blind non-entity. Our reaction is “So what?” Compare Pink Floyd and Alan Parker’s amazing The Wall. Their hero, Pink, is warped by the same World War Two trauma, but he grows up to be a blitzed-out little shit, and he knows it. Victim and victimizer, we may not like Pink, but at least we can get inside him. Tommy stares at mirrors; Pink breaks them. The Wall is as visually excessive as Tommy, but the former works because the excess is grounded in a dark reality. Russell’s telling of Tommy is as surfacy and shallow as the mirrors that obsess its hero.
Okay, blame The Who if you don’t like Tommy, but the only person you can blame for Lisztomania is Russell himself. Starting with the valid premise that Franz Liszt was the 19th century equivalent of a rock star, Lisztomania soon gets blown so far out in left field we’re not even playing ball any more. The film erodes into a misguided pastiche of anachronisms and silliness, culminating with Liszt (Daltrey) in a life-or-death battle against Richard Wagner’s (Nicholas) bermensch cum Frankenstein cum Gas Pump, Thor (Rick Wakeman), followed by a battle with Wagner as Hitler. (Russell seems to have forgotten that Wagner was Liszt’s son-in-law, via marriage to Liszt’s daughter, Cosima. Liszt conducted a memorial concert upon Wagner’s death, hardly the act of an alienated relative). Along the way, Lisztomania gives us whacked-out fantasy sequences to Liszt’s music as destroyed by Wakeman (whose cheesy score was the only bad thing about Crimes of Passion) capped by Pope Pius IX as played by Ringo Starr. It’d be nice if these sequences added up to some story, but they don’t. If anything, Russell anticipated the coming music video revolution with this “looks interesting, means nothing” film. Yeah, I miss pot, too…
His other great stinker, The Lair of the White Worm, is hardly worth mentioning, except that it features an early appearance by Hugh Grant in a role that must have been more embarrassing than Divine Brown’s roll with his white worm. At least, in the latter case, we know Grant must have derived some pleasure. Not so this filmic mess, which revolves around a British cult that worships a great serpent, updating the setting if not the attitudes of Bram Stoker’s original story. The climactic battle with the evil snake woman is howlingly, painfully, fall on the floor and barf out-loud hilarious. Again, the source material bears some of the blame — I guess there’s a reason that Stoker’s only popularly remembered work is “Dracula.”
Of course, Stoker lifted “Dracula” from John Polidori’s earlier “The Vampyr,” and the conception of that book, among others, is depicted in Gothic. I hesitate to include Gothic in Russell’s worst-of list. If you don’t watch the last two minutes, it’s one of his better films, chronicling the wild weekend in which Lord Byron, Mary Godwin, Percy Bysshe Shelley and others got together, did lots of drugs, hallucinated their asses off and then wrote fiction, the best known result being “Frankenstein.” I could make the argument that Russell’s trademark excess fits his subject here perfectly, since these people created the Romantic movement, which reveled in death, decay and darkness.
While Russell’s actors were all a decade too old for the parts they played, at least the tone was right. The Gen-X version of the same story, called Haunted Summer, hit closer on the ages and missed on everything else. Apparently, those filmmakers thought that “romantic” meant bright, airy and happy. Sorry, gang. Byron and company were the Goths of their time. At least Russell knows enough history to hit the right pitch for ninety-nine per cent of his film. Then, inexplicably, a tagged-on epilogue trashes everything that’s come before. Imagine if Van Gogh had finished “Starry Night” and then painted a big yellow smiley face at the bottom — that’s what Russell did to Gothic. The film suffers for it, and this is the only reason it goes on my “worst of” list.
Lest you think from these examples that Russell is a talentless hack, he does show occasional sparks of sheer genius. Most frequently, his films turn out as less than the sum of their parts, but when the parts come together, the result is always incredible. Next month, in part two, I’ll take a look at a few films wherein Russell got everything right.
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles, a playwright and screenwriter who works in the TV trade to keep his dogs rolling in kibble.
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